Why are people poor? | Inquirer Opinion

Why are people poor?

12:06 AM June 16, 2015

According to Fr. Vitaliano Gorospe, SJ, “social injustice is caused in great part by the imbalance of power between the rich few and the masses of the people.” There is no greater scandal to human reason and the modern state in general than the terror and obvious suffering of millions of poor people in the world, especially women and children, who live less than human life amid the affluence and the technological advances of the modern world. But indeed, why are people poor?

Liberation theologians Leonardo Boff and Clodovis Boff enunciate the empirical, the functional, and the dialectical explanation of poverty.


The empirical explanation of poverty points to the way we observe the negative attitude of the poor toward their state of being. We often accuse the poor of vices, laziness, or ignorance. The poor are viewed like rabbits who multiply without planning. They are blamed for their miserable situation insofar as poverty in this sense is understood as a matter of personal failure. The problem with regard to this approach is that it does not see the historical or structural dimension of poverty. For instance, a dark colonial past, cultural or political violence, and the hegemonic relationship between the elite few and the majority perpetuate the unequal distribution of resources and the lack of opportunity of the poor to participate in the design of state policies.

The functional explanation of poverty connotes the backward mentality of the poor in the Third World. The lack of dependable economic and social infrastructure of a country is blamed for its inability to escape the poverty trap. Poverty in this regard is interpreted on the basis of adaptation. The rich countries are viewed as having the right policies that poor states need to apply in order to improve the standard of living of people. In this approach, policymakers look into the transfer of technology and the acquisition of foreign loans as key indicators in attaining economic progress and prosperity. The problem with respect to this functionalist approach, however, is that it narrows everything to money, and so it reinforces the advantageous position of the rich in terms of control and dominance in a globalized, market-driven and consumerist economy.


The dialectical explanation of poverty reveals the monstrosity of oppression and economic exclusion. The political, social and economic organization of society, determined and designed by those who are in positions of power, favors the interest of those who are at the top of the hierarchy. The poor have become mere instruments who are continually subjected to exploitation and social alienation. For instance, poor workers are deprived of just wages and security of tenure. While there are laws that are meant to protect the welfare of the poor, their lack of means hinders them from approaching the courts to seek redress for grievances and abuses. In short, the poor are utterly powerless because, as suggested by Paul Hutchcroft and Joel Rocamora, “the logic of Philippine politics became driven to a very considerable extent by the politics of patronage: dividing the spoils among the elite and expanding the quantity of spoils available to the elite as a whole.”

The critical theorist Herbert Marcuse, for instance, says that technological domination in a capitalist system is the root cause of social and economic injustice. The capacity of the elite few to dominate must be understood on the basis of a kind of rationality that is operative in modern-day political economy. New forms of social control characterize our modern-day existence, which leads to the totalization of the individual—a one-dimensional person whose happiness is defined solely in the satisfaction of his/her material wants, lustful desires and manufactured needs. For example, wanton consumerism defines the rationality of the economic life of men and women, which in the end will result in the marginalization of those who are reduced to a mere means to an end in order to further the interest of the ruling class.

According to Jeffry Ocay of Silliman University, the Philippines as a “country in the margins” needs agents of social transformation who must work out an immanent critique of the prevailing pathologies in our society. The Church, social movements, including civil society and peasant groups, must continue their relentless fight against the brutal imposition of the capitalistic interests of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the alliance of corrupt politicians and manipulative business elites, all of which are our prime enemies that must be confronted in the struggle to emancipate the poor from injustice.

Social transformation can only be realized if we meet head-on the tide of consumerism that has brought the illusion of material prosperity as the sole standard of happiness in the world. This requires critical and sensitive individuals whose duty is to redirect the course of history back to the essence of our humanity.

Christopher Ryan Maboloc teaches philosophy at Ateneo de Davao University. He has a master’s degree in applied ethics from Linkoping University in Sweden.

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TAGS: Christopher Ryan Maboloc, column, Poverty, social injustice
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